Hale Akay
May 16 2018

Why and how did ‘project Gül’ fail?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s call for presidential and parliamentary polls on June 24 was a huge blow to the Turkish electorate, which has been suffering from years of election fatigue. Voters in Turkey have not just been forced to cast their ballots almost once a year for the last decade, but each time have found themselves under extraordinary circumstances, with each and every election and referendum presented as a matter of life and death.

The constitutional referendum of April 2017 was seen by many as the end of the road, in which Erdoğan seemed to secure his position as the sole ruler of the country. Opposition parties seemed weak and unable to develop effective strategies to combat Erdoğan, who has been in power since 2003. Many of us were in misery; many of us discussed boycotting the elections.

But then, ‘project Gül’ appeared on the horizon.

Suddenly we found ourselves bombarded by commentators, who first told us the good news that there was a possibility that opposition parties might nominate Abdullah Gül, Erdoğan’s former ally and predecessor as president, as a joint presidential candidate. Then they started vehemently arguing why it was such a good idea.

It was fierce; the moment people started to object to the idea, our beloved journalists began inviting people to reason, said those who objected to Gül’s candidacy were acting like fools for killing the last hope for Turkey. Gül was the opposition’s only way forward, they said, but their judgments were based on unreliable assumptions and opinion polls.

What the voters wanted was not important, as they had already prescribed the medication. A group of Turkey experts joined the carnival, some calling Gül’s candidacy as a game-changing manoeuvre.

Well, in explaining how the idea of Gül’s candidacy was buried, some would point to Meral Akşener, the leader of the newly established nationalist Good Party who insisted on her own candidacy. Others said Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), let the idea be discussed for a while so as not to appear as the killjoy, and waited patiently till it faded away. But it is not that simple.

I have seen over the years many political projects such as this suddenly introduced, but all were destined to fail. Yet, I have never seen such a fiasco, as nearly no one bought the idea of Gül, apart from the people who proposed it. I talked to people with different point of views, leftists, left-liberals, even opposition Islamists or conservatives, during the time his candidacy was being thrust upon us. Whoever heard the name Gül, showed an almost physical response, their eyes widening, and goose bumps visibly appearing.

No one who cooked up the idea apparently thought it an insult to present Gül to opposition voters as their saviour.  

Gül is still a member of Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and was an active senior member for more than 10 years before he was sidelined by Erdoğan. Gül’s rare objections to Erdoğan were only found audacious by himself and his close circle.

Gül only appeals to a certain group of liberals, but his candidacy would have meant defeat for the rest, even if it meant winning the elections.

The campaign for Gül was also an unbelievable communications strategy failure.

In Turkey, a certain group of mostly ‘liberal’ journalists and intellectuals have a severe credibility problem.

CHP voters are particularly averse to those who supported the AKP in its early years - the list is long, sometimes they even include institutions like the European Union. Some of the arguments of those voters can be challenged for being unfair, but this credibility problem is still there. If a divisive name like Gül was to be introduced to those voters, it should have been done calmly, by people who CHP voters would listen to. Instead, those who voiced the idea, were ones who CHP voters were most allergic to. I have no idea whether those individuals are unaware of their credibility problem or chose intentionally to act as if it did not exist.

Secondly, there is no guarantee that those who advocate democracy are themselves democratic. It is easy to talk about values, participatory democracy etc. but it is harder to practice those values, especially if you think you are intellectually superior to others. This was the case with ‘project Gül’. In a democratic society, if you come up with an idea for a certain person’s candidacy, you present it by owning it, putting your name to it. You at least try to be representative and transparent.

In our case, the idea seemed as if it were parachuted from the sky, some shyly embracing it in public, some even avoiding talking about it. Those who objected on social media were scolded to such a degree that one could question what its backers understood by democracy. CHP voters objected to their party’s members of parliament were criticised for “disliking every name”. What could be more democratic than party supporters and their representatives having an open discussion?

Meanwhile, we were trying to understand what was going on from journalists close to Gül. We learnt that 50 AKP deputies would have resign, if he had been nominated as a joint candidate. May be it is not quite obvious from outside, but we in Turkey have suffered a lot recently. We have witnessed cruelty, an incredible level of injustice and the collapse of our institutions. Our lives have been turned upside down. And we learnt from those journalists that, with our votes we had to bribe these unhappy AKP deputies, who have never raised their voices, who went along with Erdoğan for their beloved ideology no matter what. Thank you!

In the end, ‘project Gül’ failed, but interestingly its failure had some unexpected positive results.

People re-engaged in politics because of their rage. Many of those who favoured a boycott, decided against it. CHP voters suddenly found salvation on a candidate, who they would have probably objected to if he had not been nominated after such a process. The main pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), chose to protect its dignity, and nominate its jailed former leader Selahattin Demirtaş as its presidential candidate. Unbelievably, democracy won. In fact it worked just the way it was supposed to.

Different groups within the opposition reunited as they once did in the June 2015 elections. Leftist CHP voters contributed to the collection of 100,000 signatures needed to nominate nationalist Akşener as a presidential candidate, or to Temel Karamollaoğlu, the leader of Islamist the Felicity Party, who was mayor of Sivas in 1993 when a mob killed 35 mostly Alevi intellectuals in the city.

We saw that, despite their willingness to topple Erdoğan, opposition voters are more than people who have only one objective. They have demands, needs, years of suffering as a result of being underrepresented. This time, they have four strong candidates, who can be their voice, even if it will only last for two months. Who knows?

In essence, Turkish voters were being pressed into a forced marriage with Gül, chose to elope with their lover. They may win on June 24 or lose once more. However, it is apparent the elections will not bring the stability Erdoğan promises and there will be several more rounds in this match. Until then, everybody should agree that opposition voters in Turkey passed the test of democracy.